Chapter 4: The Deadliest Prey
The days that followed passed in darkness for Boromir. He walked through a warm and golden landscape, bathed in the gentle glow of Autumn, but he saw none of it. His eyes dwelt sightlessly on the ground beneath his feet, while his mind strayed in shadows.
As the pain in his head and the sickness that came with it eased, he slowly began to take notice of his surroundings. He trapped game for fresh meat, lit an occasional fire for comfort, and forced himself to rest when his body ached with fatigue. These brief halts were a kind of torment for him - silence, loneliness, not even the rhythm of his strides to dull his mind. The shadows seemed to press upon him, smothering what tiny spark of purpose or hope he had fanned to flame within himself, and leaving him coldly empty once again.
Pride carried him forward, where no strength of heart remained. His vow bound him to this road, and his duty held his back straight, his head high. His steps carried him swiftly through hills carpeted with brown grasses, through quiet, green woodlands and secretive valleys. But always, as his way led northward, his thoughts turned longingly toward the south and home.
He felt certain now that he would never see the white walls of Minas Tirith again. He would never climb her curving streets to the citadel or hear her banners snap on the breeze. He would never have the chance to mend the hurts of his leave-taking or find that common ground with Faramir that had eluded him for so long. The words exchanged at the doors of the Tower of Guard would stand forever as their last. A monument to pride and stubbornness.
The heaviness of this thought only served to weigh him down further, and it seemed that Middle-earth herself grew to share his bleak mood. The wind veered to the north and east, bringing the chill of distant moors and mountain passes with it. The sky thickened. The stars no longer greeted him with nightfall, and the moon struggled fitfully to cast its beams through the ever-lowering clouds. By day, the world was grey and silent about him.
In the late morning of a cold and colorless day, Boromir brushed aside the last, brittle leaves of a small wood and stepped out under the sky. Before him, a slope of short, smooth grass fell away to the north and west, into a valley filled with silver mist. Out of the mist another hill rose, like a hump of faded green velvet, and beyond that another, and another. Boromir stood just under the eaves of the wood, gazing raptly at the swelling backs of the downs flowing away to the solid grey of the horizon. And as he watched, the clouds opened, and the rain came down in a gleaming curtain.
A small sigh escaped him, born of mingled amazement and resignation. He had never seen a rainfall of such unsullied perfection, and even eyes such as his, unaccustomed to look for poetry in the dance of color on falling water, saw its somber beauty. But no beauty, however unexpected, would shelter him from the cold, wet reality of a long march in a hard rain.
He did not allow himself time to dwell on the discomforts of the day ahead, but hitched his shield a bit higher on his shoulder, ducked his head under the first warning droplets, and trudged down the slope toward the valley. Within minutes, his leather tabard, embroidered tunic and brocade cloak were sodden and heavy, the shirt beneath his chain mail soaked, and his hair clinging wetly to his forehead and face. The grass became slippery and treacherous with swift runnels of water pouring downhill, and where the water did not flow, it pooled deep enough to rise over the tops of his boots.
When he reached the valley floor, Boromir turned to his right, to the east, and began to circle the first round hill. He did not know why the Ranger had warned him to stay clear of the southern downs, but he did not intend to tempt fate by ignoring that warning. The green hills marched inexorably into the mists on his left, but to the right, he could see that the line of hills faded quickly into the flat scrub land that ran along the river. He had held his course well and come out of the woodlands near the eastern borders of the downs, which meant that he could cut across this edge of them quickly. And with luck, he would not disturb whatever evil haunted those green velvet mounds.
By midday, he had passed into a featureless sea of round hills and rain. He could only hope that he still moved northward, and that he would find the end of the downs by nightfall, but he had nothing to guide him. He briefly considered stopping to eat the few scraps of cold meat and shriveled autumn apples he carried, but the downs offered no shelter, and he was not hungry enough to sit down in the middle of the deluge to eat.
He was skirting the base of yet another hill, when he heard it - a woman's voice, faint and clear, lifted in song. Boromir halted abruptly and raised his head, searching for the source of the sound. He knew a momentary impulse to draw his sword, but some quality in the voice stilled his hand. This was a song of joy and welcome. There was no evil in it.
Drawn by the voice, he moved swiftly around the hill. He reached the other side and paused at the foot of the next mound, caught by the strangeness of the scene.
The singer paced slowly up the slope above him, gliding effortlessly over the streaming grass. Her pale hair hung loose down her back, and her bare arms were lifted to the sky, cupped to catch the silver rain as it fell, 'til her palms seemed to overflow with liquid light. Her gown, which hung from her shoulders to brush the grass behind her, was the color of the rain. A girdle of silver and green clasped her waist. A wreath of water lilies crowned her head.
As Boromir watched, the woman reached the brow of the hill and halted. She threw her head back and lifted her voice in a final, joyful chorus whose words were lost in the rush of water. And on her last, lingering note, the curtain of rain parted before her, letting a pale shaft of sunlight gild her with its fire. The rain stopped. The sun turned the wet grass to a field of green-shot diamonds. The singer lowered her arms and turned to look down at the watching man.
Boromir felt acutely embarrassed to be caught like this, intruding on her solitary song, and the woman's inhuman beauty unnerved him. He stood in dripping, awkward silence, waiting for a sign from her. She studied him calmly for a long moment, then laughed aloud, her clear voice ringing through the newly-washed air.
"Welcome, traveler!" she called, holding out a hand as if to draw him up the hill to her. "What errand brings you to these hills in the midst of the autumn rains? 'Tis a foul day for walking, I fear, but a fair day for singing."
Boromir's awkwardness vanished, and he climbed swiftly in answer to her call. He no longer felt the water sloshing in his boots or the extra weight of his sodden clothing. The lilting warmth of the lady's voice drove all else from his mind. He stepped onto the hilltop and halted a respectful distance from the willowy figure in silver-grey. Then he bowed with all the grace of a trained courtier.
"I beg your pardon, Lady. I did not mean to interrupt your song."
"Do not beg pardon, for any who share the rain with me may share my song as well."
Emboldened by her words, Boromir shot her a measuring look and asked, "What manner of creature are you, Lady? An Elven Princess? Or a sprite sent to tempt travelers to their deaths in the downs?"
She laughed again, like the merry gurgle of a stream over pebbles. "Neither, good sir. I am Goldberry, the River Daughter, and I dwell here with my lord, Tom Bombadil."
"Is he master of these lands?" Boromir asked, wondering if this Bombadil was the danger of which the Ranger had warned him. Perhaps he had stumbled into the realm of some jealous lord.
"He is the Master of wood, water and hill, but he is master of no lands." She sensed his sudden wariness and smiled at him. "All walk freely under the sky, though the Barrow Downs are not to be tread lightly."
Boromir nodded. He had heard tales of the Barrow Downs, as far south as Anorien and Minas Tirith. They had an evil reputation, even among soldiers who scorned to go in fear of superstitions or shadows. If these downs were the same, then the Ranger and Goldberry spoke wisely, and he would do well to heed their warnings.
"I do not intend to tread them at all," he said. "My road leads north, not west."
"Then you will walk in hard lands."
"It will not be the first time."
She tilted her head to one side, studying him with piercing eyes. "Yet you are afraid."
"Not of the road ahead, Lady," he heard himself saying, though he could not remember giving his tongue leave to speak, "but of the darkness that comes too swiftly behind me."
Goldberry stepped up close to him, the smile gone from her face. Laying one slim, pale hand on his breast, she gazed straight into his eyes.
"You carry a shadow on your heart," she murmured. "A cold breath of evil."
Even as she said the words, it seemed to Boromir as if a dark veil were suddenly lifted from his eyes, and a great weight fell from his shoulders. The shadows, so long his only companion through the endless days, fled before the warmth of Goldberry's touch. He blinked, dazed and nearly blinded by the brightness of the very air around him. Then she laughed, and the sound was as welcome as sunlight on chilled flesh.
Flinging her hair over her shoulder, she danced away from him, toward the northern lip of the hill, and called, "Let us not fear shadows in the clean light of day! Come, traveler, I will walk with you awhile!"
Boromir followed, slightly dazed and not at all certain what had just happened, but glad for the company of the River Daughter as long as she would give it. Her steps were light and quick, her bare feet making no dent in the short grass, but Boromir found that he could keep pace with her easily. Whatever magic she had worked on him, she had banished his weariness along with his despair, and he moved with a swift energy that matched her dancing grace.
As they walked, they spoke of his quest and the road that lay ahead. Boromir felt no desire to hide his purpose or his origins from the lady, so he talked freely of things he had shared with no one but his brother, 'til now. Goldberry could tell him little of the lands to the north, but she cautioned him that no track or path would take him through the wilds beyond the Weather Hills. The creatures that stalked the feet of the Misty Mountains did not make paths. They moved by stealth and hunted in darkness, and all living things were their prey. His only hope of finding Rivendell was to find the Road, but even the Road could be perilous, if approached without caution.
Somehow, even these dire warnings could not daunt Boromir, with Goldberry at his side. The vigor of hope had returned to him. He felt again the sense of purpose and the stern resolve that had first set his feet on the long road from Gondor, and only the faintest wisps of darkness still clung to the back of his mind, like the images of a half-forgotten dream.
Near sunset, they reached the northern edge of the downs. Goldberry walked with Boromir to the crest of the last hill and stood beside him, watching the night shadows lengthen across a flat and featureless land. Behind them, they heard the clop of hooves, and Boromir turned to see a large, fat, sleek pony trotting up the hill. The beast had bags slung over his back, and he approached Goldberry like an old and trusted friend.
"Fatty Lumpkin!" she called in delight, as the pony sidled up to her. "Tom has not forgotten us, I see!"
From the bags, she took bread, fruit, cheese and wine. She gestured for Boromir to join her, then sat on the smooth turf and ate heartily of the simple fair. Boromir ate what she offered, but his eyes strayed often to the cold ridge of hills barely visible to the north, and his face grew increasingly drawn and grim.
He knew that this meal was Goldberry's farewell. She had lightened his heart for awhile, guided him through the downs, and given him what counsel she could. Now they must take separate paths. Boromir was no longer afraid of what lay ahead, but he felt a lingering disquiet. The shadows had not gone, only fled into the deepest recesses of his mind, where cold and loneliness and failure could feed them, could nurse them back to strength again.
When they had supped, Goldberry rose to her feet and clapped to bring the pony cantering up to her. She took the remaining provisions from the animal's bags and gave them to Boromir, with an airy laugh at his thanks. Then she held out a hand to him and smiled, when he bowed over it.
"I must bid you farewell and safe journey."
"Thank you, Lady." The smile had left his face, and the eyes he lifted to hers were somber. "My journey has been the brighter for your fair company. I will remember it, no matter what darkness overtakes me."
"Nay. Turn not your eyes behind, to the coming darkness, but ahead to the promise of hope and victory."
"And if there is no such hope?"
"There is always hope."
Stepping close to him, she plucked a flower from the crown on her hair, and slipped its stem through the metal clasp of his cloak. Boromir felt again the strange lightening of his spirit that came with her touch, and as she dropped her hands, he reached to touch the bloom with his own.
"The quest has not failed, so long as you live to see the sunrise," she said.
He bowed wordlessly, then turned away to retrieve his shield and gear. Goldberry stood at the pony's side, unsmiling, but as he shouldered his burdens and started for the downward slope, she called out,
"Go in hope, Boromir of Gondor! Remember, despair is the weapon of the Enemy!"
He turned and lifted a hand. "Farewell, Lady Goldberry."
Then he strode down the hill, into the gathering night, and did not look back. He did not see Goldberry standing, like a slim column of light upon the hilltop, watching him fade into the empty lands. He did not know that the sun had long sunk behind the black shoulders of the downs and the cold wind risen, before she mounted the pony and rode silently away. Boromir was a soldier with a duty to perform, and soldiers did not look back.
The teeth of the hills seemed to march on forever, grinding to dust any traveler unwary enough to enter them. Between them lay dark valleys cut by rocky streams, choked with clinging nettles and overhung by pine woods that creaked and moaned in the icy northern winds. As Goldberry had warned, Boromir found no path or track to lead him through this inhospitable land. He scrambled through the barren hills for countless days, always searching for some sign of the road and finding nothing but more rock, wood and dark water.
He tried to hold a course roughly north, knowing that the road lay in that direction. At night, the stars gave him some guidance, but they were all too frequently veiled behind cloud or hidden by the dense branches of the evergreens that stalked the hills. And he did not like to travel by night. The forest, dour enough by daylight, seemed to come alive with malevolent shadows when the sun fled.
Keeping in mind what Goldberry had told him of the creatures that hunted here, he was careful how he chose his camps. Where possible, he put solid rock at his back and something above his head to shelter him from the frequent rains. The first night he heard the wolves howling, he slept in the branches of a huge pine tree, but it was a fitful and troubled sleep. He did not try to spend the night aloft again, but he kept a fire banked beside him and his sword ready to hand.
Throughout this endless, numbing trek, he repeated Goldberry's final words to him, holding them up as a shield against the encroaching darkness. Her flower, now faded and crumpled, he carried tucked into the top of one gauntlet. None of her warmth lingered in the dead petals, but he could not bring himself to cast it away. It reminded him that the shadows were not impenetrable and defeat not certain.
On the evening of a nameless day - spent, like any other, scaling pitiless rocks and scrambling along treacherous slopes only to find more rocks, more slopes, and no pity at the end of them - Boromir began to look about him for a place to halt. He was working his way long the floor of a choked and twisted valley, with crags piled up to either side and darkening sky above. Walking was easier on the valley floor, but he would not sleep in such an exposed place. With an inward sigh, he turned his steps uphill, making for the stony heights.
He hardly noticed the first howl. He had listened to the wolves hunting these hills too often to let it worry him, now. But the second howl came from much nearer, and it lifted the hair on Boromir's scalp. Pausing in his climb, he looked about him nervously. A third howl answered the second, and this time, he was certain that the cry came from somewhere behind him on the opposite slope of the valley.
With a muttered curse, he began running up the hill. The burgeoning fear in him told him to run down, toward the flatter valley floor, where he could lengthen his stride and cover more ground, but he knew better than to heed that voice. He needed a defensible place, and that meant higher ground, with a hill at his back.
More howls came out of the night, moving inexorably closer and spreading out to flank him. They had scented their prey. Another shuddering cry sounded, ahead and above him. He cut to his left across the slope and picked up his pace, though his feet slid treacherously on loose earth and gravel. He had spotted what appeared to be a rock shelf poking out of the hillside, within reach, if he could only climb fast enough.
The cries of the hunting pack drew closer, and Boromir saw phantom shapes bounding through the trees below him. He was now using his hands nearly as much as his feet, grasping at exposed rocks and roots for balance, scrambling toward the illusory safety of the ledge. Paws thudded ominously just behind him, and the beast on the hill above gave voice to a long, chilling howl.
Boromir sensed the approach of the hunter behind. He heard the wolf's breathing, a harsh rasp in its throat, then the change in rhythm as it leapt. Fear made him reckless, and he threw himself to the right, away from its lunging jaws. Teeth fastened on his booted foot. He lashed out with all his strength, throwing the wolf off its feet and snapping its neck viciously. It loosened its grip long enough for Boromir to pull his foot free and fling himself up the slope. His left hand closed over the solid stone of the ledge, and with his right hand, he drew his sword, turning to meet his foe.
As the beast lunged again, Boromir met it with the point of his blade. The sword passed cleanly through its throat, and Boromir flung its heavy body away. A second shape leapt at him from the right, too fast for a clean thrust, but he managed to swing the flat of the blade into the creature's face and turn aside its snapping jaws. Then, he tossed his sword onto the ledge, caught the stone lip with both hands, and dragged himself onto the flat ground.
He barely had time to stagger to his feet and retrieve his sword before they were on him. Three great beasts, eyes blazing with hunger and hatred, hurled themselves at his throat. The largest of the three leapt the fastest and died first, its head lopped off with a single stroke from the great sword. Boromir whirled with the force of his stroke, turning away from the next pair of jaws and bringing his blade around in a singing arc to strike a slashing blow to the second beast's flank. It screamed and twisted in the air, flailing to reach its prey even as it died, and its snapping teeth struck Boromir in the forehead.
He did not feel the wound, in the frenzy of battle. Stepping clear of the twitching corpse, he turned to deflect the third wolf's attack with his gauntleted left arm and drove his blade into its exposed belly. Before he could free his sword, or wrench his leather-clad arm from the creature's dying jaws, Boromir was hit with a tremendous weight.
It fell on him from above, bearing him to the ground and tearing his sword hilt from his grasp. Boromir landed face down, the breath driven from his body by the impact. Then powerful jaws caught the edge of his shield and tried to wrench it from his back to bare his neck. With a cry of rage and disgust, Boromir threw off this new attacker and rolled to his feet.
He found himself staring into the burning eyes of a great wolf chieftain - the craftiest and fiercest hunter of these hills, marked with the scars of a hundred battles. The wolf, who had disdained the frontal assault of the pack, had crept up the hill behind Boromir and attacked from above, when he could not bring his weapon to bear. Now the great hunter faced its prey, open hunger glaring in its eyes. It did not hesitate, but leapt straight for Boromir's throat.
Boromir flung up an arm to protect himself from the flashing teeth, as the wolf's weight landed on his chest. He dropped heavily to his knees in a pool of cooling blood. Fangs sank into his arm, cutting through fabric, leather and mail to find living flesh. The taste of blood maddened the wolf, and it growled savagely, shaking its head from side to side as its jaws tightened. Boromir cried out with as much fury as pain, and he struck the creature a stunning blow to the head with his fist. The wolf released its grip, but only to hurl itself at his unprotected throat again.
Boromir blocked its lunge with his forearm, thrusting his already torn and bleeding limb into the creature's jaws and heaving it back on its own haunches. The man had the advantage in height, if not in strength, and the beast gave ground. Its hold on his arm slackened, and Boromir tore himself free. At the same time, he fumbled behind him with his left hand, knowing that the blood he knelt in flowed from the body of a dead wolf, and searching desperately for the sword still buried in that body.
The monster came again, relentless in its urge to kill. Boromir braced himself to meet it, as he had before, taking the brunt of the attack with his injured arm to spare his more vital and vulnerable parts. But this time, he was prepared. As the wolf struck, its jaws closing on him with such force that they drove the links of his chain mail into his flesh, Boromir brought the hilt of his sword down on its skull with a sickening crunch.
The wolf gave a yelp of pain, and its bite loosened momentarily. Boromir lurched drunkenly to his feet, dragging the wolf up with him, as it refused to let go. He now had room to use his weapon. Reversing his grip on the sword, he hacked viciously at the wolf's neck with the blade. Blood fountained from the wound. The animal's eyes glazed. Another blow, awkward with his left hand and brutal with his pain and anger, left Boromir soaked with blood but finally free of the beast's jaws.
He staggered backward, away from the flailing of the dying wolf, and tripped over the other corpse at his feet. Fighting for balance, he lurched to the outer rim of the ledge, where he stood, swaying slightly, listening to a profound silence broken only by his own ragged breathing.
Nothing moved in the darkness. Nothing hunted him, now. His sword point dropped to the stone at his feet, and he sank slowly to his knees. Agony washed through him, making his body shake as if with fever. Blood ran into his eyes from a long gash on his forehead and filled the glove on his right hand. The stench of death hung sickeningly in the air.
Boromir knelt on the cold stone, his eyes closed, searching deep in himself for the core of certainty that had carried him through countless battles - the certainty that he had the strength and the right to pick himself up out of the carnage and fight on. It never deserted him - Gondor's greatest soldier, Gondor's favored son - it lifted him up out of loss and defeat too grievous to bear. And he would find it now, in spite of the weakness and pain that filled his body to overflowing. He must find it, or die.
His left hand moved of its own accord to the top of his right gauntlet, now slick and foul with his own blood. Sliding two fingers beneath the leather, he reached for the flower that he had hidden there. He felt only more blood trickling down his sleeve from his ragged wounds. Slowly, as if knowing and dreading what he would see, he pulled his hand away and spread his fingers. The watery moon shed just enough light to reveal the few crumpled, torn and bloody petals that clung to his glove.
Despair flooded him, borne on the hot poison that already burned in his wounds and the chill breath of the black rider that seemed to hang about him still. A low, inhuman cry forced its way past his clenched teeth, laden with a suffering too deep for words. He was alone. Lost. Torn in body and spirit, until he did not have the strength to find his feet again. And now even the memory of the River Daughter's words had deserted him.
Drawing his wounded arm in against his body, as though cradling the agony of it closer, he slumped forward until his forehead touched stone. His eyes closed, and tears painted gleaming tracks through the blood on his face. Very softly, for the words were meant for one who could not hear him anyway, he whispered,
"Faramir. Faramir, I'm sorry. I promised I would find your legends for you, but I cannot. I do not know the way, and I am... tired. Forgive me, brother."
To be continued...